Polite, soft-spoken and very tall. These are the first three things that you notice when you talk to Jeff Lemire. The author of Essex Country, Roughneck, Descender, Black Hammer, Sweet Tooth and all the other superhero comics (he worked for DC, Marvel, Valiant, Dark Horse, Top Shelf and Image) was at the last edition of Lucca Comics & Games, brought by one of his italian published, Bao Publishing.
We sat down with him to talk about the craft of his work, his creative process and how he hated working on the X-Men.
So, how’s your normal day of work?
My Monday to Friday in my studio is mostly spent drawing, because I’m also drawing a book every month and drawing takes much longer than writing, so my daytime is mostly spent drawing and then at night I try to write one script a week. A couple of hours each night I’ll just work on a script and in that way I’m able to do five books a month plus whatever I’m drawing.
That’s a lot work.
It is, but I love what I do, it’s my passion. It’s all I want to do, even in my free time, I love to do it. And I find having different projects and different genres allows me to stay fresh, instead if I’d just did one thing I would get bored. Being able to do Descendent and then superheroes and then other things allows me to never really burnt out on anything ‘cause I’m doing so much different stuff.
X-Men has to come out thought. Do you find difficulties writing on command?
For example, I spend one month where I work just on the X-Men and nothing else and I might write three or four issues of the X-Men and then I get to put it away for a couple of months until I get inspired again. In that way I have never having writing on command like you said, or force myself to be inspired. If I get far enough ahead I can just go to something when I actually feel like working on it or I’m excited about it or I get a new idea.
Stay far ahead allows me the luxury of only working on something when I’m excited about it. [pause] Mostly. Once in a while you might get a deadline where you have to write but I usually manage to stay far ahead so I can pick and choose and really only working when I’m feel like.
And what is like when you actually have to write something because of the deadline?
It’s miserable. I don’t ever get in that situation. I’m really good with time management, so… I honestly can’t think about the last time I was on a deadline where I had to write something. I’m usually three or four months ahead of where I need to be, because I hate that feeling. I never let myself get there.
I tend to do projects that are very different from one another, I try not to work on anything that’s too similar. If I’m working on Descendent or Royal City it’s just a matter of getting my head in that world again and the world sort of tells me what the story is. I never have to force it.
Is it stressing different muscles writing personal works vs work-for-hire?
I guess so. I try to approach it the same way, what makes the Marvel stuff successful for me is that I try to bring the same amount of myself to it that I bring to my creator-owned works. I hate to separate them, because you start creating work that feels artificial or forced. But, I mean, by the nature they tend to be a little different, a little more freedom on your work, take the story wherever you want, don’t have to get approval every time. I think that freedom gives you a bit of confidence that helps you.
Doing superhero stuff gives you the same pleasure?
To be honest, I grew up reading superhero comics and I love them. I was really excited to write stuff for Marvel and DC for the first few years that I did it, but lately I’m feeling burnout on it, so I think I’m gonna move away from that stuff and just do creator-owned.
And then all the superhero stories that I wanna do, I can kinda do them in Black Hammer now, which is my own superhero universe. I’m in a really good spot where I can finally take a break from that stuff. It was fun for a few years but now it’s starting to feel like work and I don’t like that.
Was it a rush decision or something that was slowing building in your head?
You never do anything on a rush, it was something that it built up over a year or so where I just felt it wasn’t the place for me anymore. I felt that I’ve done the stuff I wanted to do and I wanted to move on. I’m doing a couple of smaller projects for DC right now but even those are sort of eccentric weird side projects. I don’t know if I really wanna do any big books like Batman or Superman, I don’t feel passionate about it anymore. Ideally a year from now, I’ll just be doing my own stuff.
For a while?
Probably. Maybe I just need a break, to be honest, ‘cause I’ve done so much. I started writing superhero comics for DC in 2010, so for the last seven years I’ve written a lot of comics for Marvel or DC and I feel burnout on it. I’ll take just a couple of years to do my own work and I’ll see how I’ll feel, you never know. Maybe I’ll love doing that and I’ll never go back, but I do love those characters, so probably I just need a couple of years to rest.
Where do guys like Bendis take the energy to them for so many years?
I don’t know, if had to just do Marvel or DC work I probably would quit, I wouldn’t do comics anymore, just because it’s too similar, I just don’t have enough freedom to do the kind of stories I want to do or the kind of stories I wanted to do when I first started making comics. I want to get back to do just that stuff.
Did you find constrains in that? Or at some point you were censoring youself because you knew that they would not accept that idea?
Little bit of both. It depends on the projects. Certain books like Moon Knight total freedom, they never gave me any notes and you can kinda see it in the work, it’s the best thing I did.
Do you feel that was your best work, for Marvel?
Yeah, for sure. And then, you know, the X-Men stuff was… Kind of a nightmare, to the honest. Really difficult, I came into and they already had storylines in place I had to use that I probably wouldn’t came up with myself and I felt editorial was very restricting in what they wanted. And too many notes. And then you start second-guessing yourself. It’s just not a good situation. That wasn’t a great experience but on the flipside, doing Moon Knight was really fun.
So it just depends on the editor and on the project and the property, but sometimes it can get a bit restricting and then, like you said, if you’re working with these kind of editors and stuff you’re not writing from a place of confident, «Will they like this, or this?». You never have that feeling when you’re working on your creator-owned works.
How do you see yourself in the comic book industry?
I don’t think too much about that stuff, I’m so worried of what my next project is and doing something good. I just worried about the book that I’m working on that day. I mean, I know my books sell well enough that I can keep doing what I want to do and that’s really the most important part. I recognize that certain things that I’ve done stood the test of time. Essex Country is still very vital today, so I can see that and it’s flattering and gratifying. I do see that I have a strong readership.
I’m lucky enough that I can do something like Descender which is sci-fi or Royal City which is very emotional and my readership seems to follow me from one thing to another. So, that’s very fortunate for me. But in terms of the bigger context, I don’t think too much of that.
Your style is very peculiar, sketchy and immediate on the page. How did you find it? Do you think about the line or is it immediate to do?
It’s funny because my artwork does look very spontaneous but I actually spend a lot more time laboring over my artwork and thinking about mu artwork than I do with my writing. My writing is very spontaneous [laughs]. I write a script in a few hours, just like a stream of consciousness, whereas the art is very labored and I have to work really hard at it.
And it just came from the fact that five years before I ever published anything where I was drawing comics every day, really bad comics, and going in different directions that weren’t me and that’s the only way to find what is you: going the wrong way and going back and be a really good self-critic and recognize when you’re doing something that isn’t honest. Over those years I gradually developed a style that felt natural to me and the artists I always admired were really expressive and you could really see their personality in the artwork.
I don’t have that photorealistic sensibility, I don’t have that ability, so it’s just from recognize what you do well, which is for me create mood and emotion, and going in that direction. Also, I didn’t know anyone from the comic book scene in Toronto, I was in a vacuum and maybe that’s where my style came from too, which was that I was self-taught and not influenced by anyone else. All of that probably helped to make whatever style I have.
In those early books what kind of styles were you aiming at?
At that time I didn’t know anybody else who made comics, so I was on my own. I didn’t go to art school, so I was just teaching myself, trying to figure out what kind of tools to use, even that alone changes how you draw. It took me a while to figure out cartoonists use brushes, which pens they use or don’t. So even changing tools, my style would change dramatically and my early stuff was very unprofessional. I didn’t use brushes, I didn’t know how to spot black, so things were very different. And then you also fall in love with different artists when you’re younger and you try to draw like someone else sometimes, so you go a couple months copying someone else’s style.
Who did you copy?
The guy I was obsessed with in that period, the early 2000s, was Dave McKean, especially Cages. I got inspired a lot by his expressiveness and spontaneity of his line work, but I also spent too much time trying too much like him and he’s a much better draftsman than I’ll ever be. So there was some bad works there.
Now do you feel you’ve reached a point where your style is cemented?
I have my style now, you draw the way you draw. But there are always refinements, playing with different media. I just started in the last two years watercoloring my artworks. You find new ways to do things, but still maintain what’s working.
How are you doing with that technique?
I love it. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to not doing them. It adds an all new layer to the work that wasn’t there before. That’s been really fun in the last three years experimenting with that. I’m still learning and adding and just…
Go with flow!
Yeah, go with flow. Trial and error, I’m trying things that work for me and my style.
And in the writing? Did you just learn by doing it?
I just started writing things that I could draw. I just did that and then, it wasn’t until 2010 that I got hired to write something for another artist for the first time and that took me a couple of years to figure out what stories I wanted to tell with another artist.
And then I did Animal Man and that was the time where I figured out how to put the pieces together, but I don’t overthink the writing at all. I spend a lot of time plotting and working on the plot and then when I actually write the script I try to keep it very emotional and spontaneous.
Like your drawing.
Yes, there’s the common element. I think that immediacy it’s a good thing. Especially with writing the risk is to overthink everything. You can spend weeks overthinking a scene and a dialogue and then you look back at the first draft and it’s just as good as the last. I don’t know, I just get it out there.
You managed to do an astonishing amount of work in the last seven years.
I’ve been exclusive at DC for five years, and my contract ended and I decided that I wanted to try other things and work with other people. I approached different publishers and all of sudden I was doing one book for Dark Horse, one for Valiant, one for Image, one for Marvel. Now I narrow down to just a couple and I’m not really doing any work-for-hire stuff.
And every company has good thing and bad things. Valiant was wonderful, Image is just you on your own. Dark Horse was super supportive, I have a great editor there.
On top of that, uou even did some animation work with the adaptation of Secret Path, the comic book based on the concept album by Gord Downie.
It was an incredible project doing that comic book. Gord [Downie] gave me all the songs and let me do my thing. Then he would come every couple of weeks and if something wasn’t feeling right for what he had in mind he would tell me, but for the most part trusted me. We work closely on it, emotionally we got very closed. Gord passed away two or three weeks ago so it’s been really hard. But concerning the animation special, I mean, I’ve no interested in animation.
You wouldn’t like to try directing?
Not really. I’ve done a little screenwriting just for fun, I wrote the screenplay for the feature adaption of Plutona. That was fun, because it was my story. It’s for the same guys that are working on The Underwater Weller with Ryan Goslin. Seven of my books are in different stages of development. Descendent seems to be moving. There’s a screenplay, there’s now a director attached, an Italian director actually.
I can’t say. But yeah, Essex Country seems very close to put into production on television, but then again there’s no official word, so who knows. And the others are all in different stages, early ones. I’m not too involved with them. I don’t really care if they’ll happen.
But I don’t aspire to do that, but it was fun to try. Comics give me so much freedom that I don’t really have interest in other things. The only reason I would do it would be for money and that’s not a good reason for doing anything.
You don’t seem very eager to see your comic books on the big screen.
Let’s be honest: how many movies are made every year and how many of them are actually good? Not many, right? First of all, the chances of getting made are very small and then the chances that it gets made and it’s actually good… It’s almost impossible.
It’s heartbreaking to be too invested. For me it would be too hard. And if something happens and it’s good, that’s amazing. It’s not a priority. My priority is comics. It’s everything I want to do.